Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act

The public’s right to attend governmental agency meetings in Pennsylvania is based upon a state law called the “Sunshine Act.” The Sunshine Act applies to public agencies, which include Pennsylvania executive branch agencies, the General Assembly, and municipal authorities, such as township boards of supervisors and local school boards. The Act also covers any organization created by statute that declares in substance that it performs an essential governmental function, exercises governmental authority and takes official action.

The Sunshine Act mandates that agencies are required to conduct their deliberations in public. As with many laws, there are exceptions to the public meeting requirements of the Sunshine Act, but the law begins with a statement of intent, stressing the right of the public to witness the decision-making process to ensure that the democratic process functions property.

Helpful links about the Sunshine Act

Questions or concerns about Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act? Contact the PNA’s Legal Hotline for assistance by calling 717-703-3080 or emailing Legal@PANewsMedia.org.

Objecting to a Closed Meeting

What to do when a meeting is closed?

(Mr. Or Madame Chairman): I am _______, a reporter for__________newspaper. I protest the closing of this meeting, the reason you have listed for closing the meeting does not meet the provisions of Pennsylvania’s Open Meeting Law. I ask that you reconsider your intent to discuss this matter in executive session. I further ask that this protest be recorded in the official minutes of the meeting, as required by law.

Provided by the PENNSYLVANIA NEWSMEDIA ASSOCIATION
(717) 703-3000

What’s wrong with the Sunshine Act?

PNA members may use this editorial freely for reprint in their own publications.

From the PNA Legal Department

Here at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, we are often asked what’s wrong with Pennsylvania’s open meetings law, also called the Sunshine Act. Why is it that public officials across the state are able to conduct so much public business behind closed doors, and without any repercussions? We talk to hundreds of reporters and editors during the course of a year about closed meetings and “secret” decisions. Last month alone, our Legal Hotline received about 50 telephone calls from reporters with questions about whether agencies were complying with the Sunshine Act.

As a result of these conversations, it has become clear that the main problem with the Sunshine Act is not really the Act itself. The real problem with the Act — and this probably won’t surprise anyone — is that public officials ignore it. The penalties under the Act are insignificant and very rarely imposed. Worse, the Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly permitted public agencies to ignore the Act’s requirements by holding that agencies can “cure” Sunshine Act violations. This means that they can discuss and decide matters in private, in violation of the Act, and as long as they “redo” their vote in public, their decision can stand. But this misses the whole point of the Sunshine Act.

The purpose of the Sunshine Act is to allow the public to witness agency decisions and, with limited exceptions, the discussions leading up to those decisions. Allowing agencies to “cure” violations so easily deprives the public of any ability to understand how decisions were reached. And it provides very little incentive for agencies to follow the strict requirements of the Act.

Some agencies routinely conduct the public’s business in private. They hold “informational sessions” or “fact-finding meetings” and claim that because they are not making any decisions, they can conduct them in private. They bring in outside consultants to talk about school or government policy, but claim that because they are “gathering information” or conducting a “question and answer session” with the consultant, and not discussing the matter among themselves, they can hold the meeting behind closed doors. They pass out secret “board packets,” and then vote on items without identifying or describing them to the public in attendance. They engage in “serial” phone calls or group e-mails, or take “phone polls” on issues.

The list goes on and on.

It has become obvious that the only hope for stopping these practices is to amend the Act to specifically prohibit them, and to strengthen the penalty provisions to create a real disincentive to violating the Act. The Act should make it even clearer that discussions, including informational and “fact-finding” sessions, must be open (unless they qualify under an executive session exception). It must specifically address e-mail communications, make it clear that agencies cannot “cure” a violation simply by retaking a vote in public, and require agencies to keep minutes or recordings of “private” sessions. That way, if they are found to have met in violation of the Act, the public will have the opportunity to witness and understand the agency’s “secret” discussions.

Public officials are making critical decisions and committing your money to projects every day. They decide the salaries and benefits of public employees. They decide how much your local taxes are going to be. They decide when it is necessary to commit millions of dollars to a new high school, and they decide when and how much to pay to settle a lawsuit. Too often, the public is cut out of vital discussions and decisions. It’s time to change that.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association routinely collects examples of Sunshine Act violations across the state to share with legislators as we advocate for improvements to the law. Anyone interested in sharing a Sunshine Act story should feel free to send it to the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, 3899 North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17110, or e-mail it to legal@panewsmedia.org.